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Henry Judd

A Stirring Book from Hitler’s Buchenwald

(24 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 12, 24 March 1947, pp. 3–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Out of the experience of Hitler’s Germany, lived through by hundreds of thousands of slave laborers and concentration camp prisoners; has come a remarkable book, L’Univers Concontrationnaire, written by a French socialist, Labor Action, is happy to call the attention of its readers to this profound human document and work of art In this review. We hope that an American publisher will make the book available to a wide range of readers in this country.


Our world has long since become hardened to the shock of catastrophe and cataclysm, be it man-made or caused by nature. Trotsky said that modern man lives on his nerves; to survive the endless series of disasters that occur about him, this man’s nerves must be conditioned to ward off such blows. The facts of war, of hunger and disease, of concentration camps and brutalities; these facts by themselves no longer penetrate the modern consciousness.

A recital of piled-up horrors, the heaping up of tortured details; all this will, at best, produce a momentary effect upon the individual at whom it is directed. Those who, in the military drive through Germany, saw the Nazi concentration camps at first hand will recall how quickly their minds became adjusted to the sights. A five-minute talk with one of the released inmates had more meaning. Many articles, brochures and even books have already been produced by these prisoners.

For this experience of “the world of the concentration camp,” like experience in general, means nothing to us by itself. A recital of the tragic story, a cataloguing of harrowing details, an indictment of those responsible for this, while it may inform the uninformed, will do little else. But who is uninformed? Men today, in their overwhelming numbers, know these experiences, if not at first hand, then at next hand from intimate friends and comrades. Much more than this is required. It is because it IS so much more that we find this small book of David Rous-set, L’Univers Concentrationnaire [1], a masterpiece of its kind, a brilliant if somewhat disordered work of art, a shattering experience to the reader.

David Rousset, a revolutionary socialist and, at one period, a leader of the French Trotskyist movement, had the essential prerequisite for the writing of such a book, and furthermore, had the talent and capacity to create the only work that could have any value or meaning for us. As a socialist, Rousset understood the relationship of this dark valley through which he was passing to the “outside” world that encompassed his camp. He knew that his new world, mad and fantastic though it be, was an organic part of that other, the outside world. And Rousset knew that, to succeed in his work, he must produce a living experience that would be a living experience for the reader as well. The world of Buchenwald must come to life, we must learn to feel and understand it and its entire mechanism; we must brood over its tragedy and historic meaning; we must witness the sordid deeds of its inmates; we must participate in its acts of courage and compassion.

In the grip of Rousset, a writer with a sense of drama and irony and a flair for the modernized adaptability of classic French, in the manner of Jean Malaquais, we live within his experience. We are in Buchenwald; we are in the camp.

“The great solitary city of Buchenwald; a small tourist city on the banks of the Weser, Ponta Westphalica, with liaised hillocks along the river’s length and factories slowly settled amidst a world of roots and trees.” We meet men “of all peoples, of all convictions, at a time when wind and snow tumble on their shoulders, freezing windows to the rhythms of marches, as strident as a broken and mocking blasphemy, under blinding lights, on the Great Square of Buchenwald’s frosty nights. Men without convictions, wan and violent, men bearing beliefs that have been destroyed, dignities that have been defeated; an entire people, naked, internally naked, stripped of all culture, of all civilization, armed with shovels and pick-axes, picks and hammers, fettered to rusted Lorens, diggers of salt, shovellers of snow, mixers of concrete. A people hardened by blows, obsessed by the paradise of forgotten foods, the intimate sting of their downfall – this people the length of time.”

“The First Born of the Death”

The lists of those to be shipped to the Polish extermination camps are once more opened. The SS doctor, his boots gleaming, is smoking a cigar. One by one, the “concentrationnaires” approach him. He opens each one’s pants and feels the muscles of the abdomen. “With his hand he begins the gesture: next one. Outside, in the grey air, the smoke of the Crematorium.”

“Every morning, before dawn, the slave market. The ‘Rubber Men’ (SS) rain blows on skulls, shoulders. Fists crash into faces. Boots stamp, stamp and loins are black and blue and yellow ... Work crews form ... Kapos (camp trustees) and foremen, the slave-dealers. Their morning alcohol: to strike, strike until appeased with fatigue. Shortly before six o’clock, the SS man will pass the work crews in review. He stands before the grey men, fist on hip, legs spread apart, whip, a long lanner of plaited leather in his other hand. His boots shine, clear, neat, without a trace of mud.”

At night, “45,000 prisoners move toward the Great Square. The living, the sick and the dead ... the slow march of a haggard people. It is a universe apart, completely shut off, strange kingdom of a singular fatality. The deepness of the camps.”

“Strange Fixations Trouble Their Bodies”

”George has left. He counts ten years in the camp. Now he is in love with a woman prisoner, and clandestinely he slips her letters and sometimes a snack. He risks 25 blows on the buttocks, but he is in love.

“... We hear Poppehhauer’s voice – the full-blown petty bourgeois type, out of Simplicissimus. Alfred, the Kapo of Rollwagen. ’... He sold Franz to the SS ... That evening he had showered blows upon Rudolf, who had made dirty propositions to Heinz, the cure, his lover. Herbert Pfeiffer – Kamou – Delaunay – the huge Tony and the Russians – Toni-Bruncken, a sadistic brute, our block leader. One day he flogged all the women prisoners – 400. The room nicknamed Judas – Emil Künder – Kurt, 10 years in the camp – Otto, the foreman; afraid of everything; of the Kapos, the civilian masters, the guards. Max the baker, a man of the Bible. With his dead hands he showed us Hitler, image of the apocalyptic beast, doomed to destruction. Hermann, a Communist ... Felix, the Pole, claiming to be German ... bearing with him the odor of the Gestapo.”

“There Are Several Rooms Within the Lord’s House”

“The world of the concentration camp is organized under different plans. Buchenwald is a chaotic city, a kind of incompletely built capital ... Neuengamme, by contrast, is strictly an industrial center ... Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, Dachau ... constitute ‘normal’ types of camps, forming the essential armature of the world of the concentration camp.” The reprisal camps against Jews and Aryans, such as Auschwitz and Neue-Bremm, are different. These have two fundamental orientations – “no work, ‘sport,’ a mockery of food.”

“Between these camps of destruction and the ‘normal’ camps there is no difference in nature, but only one of degree. Buchenwald had its Hell.”

It is wrong to think of the camps as a concentration of political-prisoners. The politicals are a handful. The dominant color is green: “criminals, thieves, bandits of all tongues, fierce and cynical aristocrats, careerists.” The Russians, composing, the anonymous mass of the camps; the Poles, the first foreigners in the camps; the Greeks, professors, lawyers, soldiers, levantine bandits; the Dutch, slow and mournful workers and peasants; the Czechs, disciplined and cultivated men; the Luxemburgeois, “a closed freemasonry; at Buchenwald, the police”; the Danes; the French.

Lack of space makes it impossible to summarize this book, chapter by chapter. The systematization of the various social categories and the struggle between these ranks for power; the clandestine organization of political discussion life (“Slaves give only their bodies”); the corruption of the individual prisoner through the giving of power (“What serves it a man to conquer the world?”); the analysis of the SS and its inner structure (“The gods do not dwell upon the earth”); the psychic forces that drive the members of the SS (“The silent hours of the SS”); the working out of the camp’s functioning through the hierarchy of the prisoners (“Theory of Powers”); the use of privilege as a weapon for internal strife and division (“Men live not only by politics”); the debasement of human feelings (“Desire itself is corrupted”); an estimation of the political and ideologic groups within the camps (“A new outlook on the class struggle”) and, finally, the scenes of liberation (“The waters of the sea draw back”).

“The world of the concentration camp closes upon itself. It continues to live now in the world like a dead star, loaded down with corpses.”

“The Dead Stars Pursue Their Course”

“The existence of the camps is a warning. German society, both by reason of the strength of its economic structure and the sharpness of the crisis that defeated it, experienced a most exceptional decomposition in the present world conjuncture. But it would be easy to show that the most characteristic traits of the SS mentality ... may be found in many other sectors of world society ... It would be a “criminal deception to claim that it is impossible for other peoples to go through an analogous experience due to reasons of natural opposition. Germany has interpreted, with an originality due to its own history, the crisis that led it to the world of the concentration camp. But the existence and the mechanism of this crisis belong to the economic and social foundations of capitalism and imperialism. Under a new form, similar effects can appear tomorrow ... Consequently, a precise battle must be conducted. The balance of the concentration camp is, in this respect, a marvelous arsenal. The German anti-fascists, interned for more than 10 years, must be precious comrades in the struggle.”

Much as we disagree with Rousset’s present political point of view, we welcome this new book of his. Labor Action Book Service has copies of L’Univers Concentrationnaire available ($2.00) and will be pleased to fill orders. Because of its difficulties, however, a rather advanced acquaintance with the French language is needed to read this book. We are informed that publishing rights have been sold to an American publisher, but we do not know when it will be available.

* * *


1. L’Univers Concentrationnaire, by David Rousset, Editions du Pavois, Paris, 187 pages.

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